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Heat Lightning by Helen Hull 

The name of this author, Helen Hull, was not familiar to me, but I wanted to read something from the Persephone list, and this one (and two others) caught my eye. She wrote 17 novels (20 if you believe her New York Times obituary) and this one was made Book of the Month in 1932, when it first appeared. Those two recommendations, published by Persephone and chosen as Book of the Month were enough for me.

Heat Lightning

It’s 1930, and in the searing heat of summer Amy returns to the town of her childhood. She travels by train from New York to the midwestern town of Flemington. Amy’s life is in a turmoil as she and her husband Geoffrey appear to be drawing apart. Her children are at summer camps, so she returns to her parents’ house to rest and think about her life.

But Amy finds no rest for she is immediately plunged into family issues: her sister has just given birth to her fifth daughter; the effects of the Crash are rippling towards them; her father and his brother and sister are at loggerheads; and her cousin Tom appears to be in some kind of trouble. 

The novel follows Amy as she meets up with her parents, brother and sister, aunts and uncles and many cousins. The family is dominated, from the house next door by her grandmother, Madam Westover. She is a widow, but she is cared for by Lavinia, a faithful servant, and by Curly the devoted odd job man.

Amy is not able to devote any time to her own problems, but she observes the activities of her family and reflects on how they approach life. The Westover family is a large one, and there are incomers as marriages have taken place. There is a lot of grasping behaviour, motivated by greed, jealousy, and need. 

The Westover family appear to be tolerant of unconventional behaviour. Amy’s cousin is clearly gay. She wears a tie, tweeds, and sensible shoes, she smokes, and she refers to a waiting female friend. Although she is not very kind, the family bear with her cruel comments. Amy reflects:

Poor Harriet was a muddle. Her well of loneliness had brackish waters. (256) 

The notorious novel by Radclyffe Hall called The Well of Loneliness had been published in 1928. Amy’s parents’ maid, Lulu, is pregnant by Tom. But no one believes that they should marry. It turns out that Amy’s grandfather had an illegitimate son, born around the same time as her father Alfred. Madam Westover appears to take this in her stride, acting as problem-solver and peacemaker. She is the most vivid character in the novel, old but not staid, wealthy but also generous and big hearted.

The central crisis of the book sets off many unsavoury behaviours. Some members of the family are revealed as selfish, desperate, entitled or plain stupid. But others turn out to be generous, helpful, and ready to take on change. Amy’s parents have a good relationship with each other and are among the good guys.

Amy observes all of this and draws conclusions for herself. Some of this is rather turgid reading as characters provide her with little lessons about their own codes or lack of them. Today we are more likely to use the phrase moral values, I think. Here Amy’s mother reflects on the two things she lives by:

‘… one is acting so I don’t feel ashamed of myself, so I feel comfortable with myself. Sometimes I’m driven into saying or doing things I know I’m going to be ashamed of. The other – that’s people. Loving them. Loving them enough, now, so you feel alive. Not a vague love for everybody. That’s nonsense. But for your special ones.’ (300)

This wisdom is imparted towards the end of the novel, and Helen Hull has shown the reader that Catherine behaves with integrity. She has also shown us plenty of family members not following this code. Amy comes to realise that there is a future for her marriage as a result of her brief stay.

I have seen this novel described as domestic, a family novel. But one reason for the large cast of characters seems to have been that Helen Hull was using the family to stand for American society, especially as it faced the outcomes of the 1929 Crash, and all the other social changes of the ‘30s.

The preface is helpful in this respect.

Eventually she [Amy] realises that her family – into which ‘foreigners’ have married – is a microcosm of the larger society. … The plot is driven by her struggle to identify values that persist, even though norms of behaviour may vary among ethnic groups, social classes or generations. (Preface xi)

Some of the description and the similes are rather overwritten, but I can forgive Helen Hull this for most of the book is pacey, rich, and thoughtful. It kept me occupied while a suffered my stonking winter cold!

Helen Hull

Born in Michigan in 1888, Helen Hull lived until 1971. She wrote many novels and short stories, and taught creative writing at Wellesley, Barnard and Columbia. She edited The Writer’s Book, a collection of 50 essays by prominent writers, described as practical advice by experts in every field of writing. Heat Lightning was her sixth novel.

Despite the unflattering depiction of Harriet in the novel, Helen Hull herself had a lifelong relationship with a woman, Mabel Louise Robinson. 

Heat Lightning by Helen Hull first published in the US in 1932. I used the edition from Persephone, published in 2013 with a preface by Patricia McClelland Miller. 328pp

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